A Time of Growth: Looking to Next School Year
“Now is the right time to think through what we have learned and what we have not yet done,” reflects Jessica Nauiokas, a New Leaders alum and the executive director at Mott Haven Academy Charter School. “It’s a real opportunity for us to go into the next school year with an even stronger handle on how we can deepen our practice. This time of year is refreshing in schools. It’s a time of growth.”
Founded in 2008 in partnership with The New York Foundling, one of the oldest and largest social service agencies in New York City, Haven Academy has become a nationally recognized school model for meeting the academic and social-emotional needs of children and families impacted by the child welfare system. In the absence of traditional public schools, Haven Academy is the first-of-its-kind charter school to prioritize serving student populations who have experienced significant trauma, specifically putting in safeguards to preserve schooling in the midst of disruptions.
“Let one factor be constant,” explains Nauiokas, “despite the number of moves a child has to make to a new foster home or the chaotic and tragic things happening in their home lives. Let that constant be their school relationships and the teachers they trust.”
“Now is the right time to think through what we have learned and what we have not yet done. It’s a real opportunity for us to go into the next school year with an even stronger handle on how we can deepen our practice. This time of year is refreshing in schools.”
Honored to be a part of this community and set a shared vision—including adding Pre-K and expanding to middle school—Nauiokas is leading Haven Academy into its sixteenth year. We sat down with Nauiokas to learn more about what inspires her and her team to keep evolving how they serve vulnerable children and families and develop independent and resilient scholars.
When you look back to look forward, what excites you most for next school year?
We really want to be proactive around our interventions or multi-tier systems of support—how we give students more time on task when they are struggling and give students new challenges when they’re not struggling and need more enrichment. We’ve tried a few different formats and spent a lot of time thinking about how we can reimagine our approach, especially now as we feel less confined by the pandemic. We want to make sure we’re not being reactive or missing any learning opportunities.
What does your planning process entail?
We approach everything with a needs assessment and a look at the data. Then we come up with a plan to study, act, reflect. We create a pilot or an initiative and we launch it. Then we come back together and review everyone’s experience—from the kids' experience of how it is going to the parent's wishes, from the teachers and their preferences on how to use their talents and time to the leadership team. Everyone is a part of the work.
"I don’t really want to spend time on things that don’t yield positive student memories or real growth in their skill sets. If we don’t have a lot of evidence to say that this thing mattered, then why do we need to keep doing it?"
As a school leader, I learn by doing so I try to help my team members do the same. They have opportunities to lead, to take initiative, to pull together a pilot. We give them the support to make it happen and then we come back together and reflect. Either we’re not going to do that again or here’s how we need to do it differently next time. Our goal is always to go deeper.
How have you grown as a leader? Has your leadership changed as a result of the pandemic?
I don’t think my leadership changed. I think my priorities changed. I’ve always leaned on what I value. I value voice and choice. I value collegial experiences and professional exchanges. I value being constant learners and solving problems together.
What changed is where we spend our time and attention. I don’t really want to spend time on things that don’t yield positive student memories or real growth in their skill sets. If we don’t have a lot of evidence to say that this thing mattered, then why do we need to keep doing it?
Can you share more about your leadership journey? What brought you to this moment?
I was teaching in D.C. public schools and really considering what was next for me. I wanted to be a resource to any future team and a content area expert on something valuable so I did my graduate work in cognitive development, specifically around the impact of trauma on the brain and how and why children learn. After graduate school, I decided to step into school leadership and I knew that I wanted a mentorship experience. New Leaders was the perfect fit. I got to learn how to be a principal while being supported in my residency year and being mentored by a leader who I felt was of such high quality. It all seemed to line up at the time.
Years later, when I was supporting charter schools in New York City, a visionary leader at the New York Foundling presented the idea for Haven Academy. I left that meeting and said to myself, this is the kind of school students need and deserve. That is what drew me in. And, then the experience and skill set of our partner, the New York Foundling, helped to make it happen.
I don’t know that I anticipated staying 15 years, but I will say there is real value in having the opportunity to see cycles in our work, cycles in staffing patterns, cycles in a neighborhood, even cycles in the city. It’s been a real gift and an honor to be in this school community and be trusted by the families and the students and our team members to chart the course forward.
What makes Haven Academy unique?
The consistency and predictability we offer our students. If coming to school can be the most predictable part of your day and Haven Academy can make that predictable part of your day joyous and a place where you feel loved, where you have a sense of belonging, where you have trusting relationships, then that becomes a very important stabilizing factor for children experiencing instability in their home lives.
"If coming to school can be the most predictable part of your day and we can make that joyous and a place where you feel loved, where you have a sense of belonging, where you have trusting relationships, then that becomes a very important stabilizing factor for children experiencing instability in their home lives."
Now when I see how our students have more options and life choices, I feel proud. Maybe it was through an internship or access o arts and music or to STEM education. Or maybe those opportunities in high school, college and beyond are a result of their academic success or the way in which we helped them develop their passions. It is just clear to me that the experiences we give our students helped to motivate and inspire them to pursue those opportunities.
Her advice to leaders right now
I really believe that schools should be exclusively about the student experience. Students remember their relationships. They remember the people who believed in them. They remember developing new skills and having confidence in those skills.
As a school leader, if you can keep a laser focus on the student experience, it will help you make decisions on the things that are really more about the adult experience. And that laser focus will help you sort through and prioritize what is most important.